For many hockey fans and players, including several past NHL All-Stars, the City of Long Beach is Rangers country.
The late Rangers coach and general manager Emile Francis was a Long Beach institution, who was responsible for bringing the Rangers to Long Beach to practice during the 1970s and starting the Metropolitan Hockey League to introduce kids to hockey.
On Saturday, the Long Beach Ice Arena will be renamed as the Emile Francis Memorial Ice Arena at the City of Long Beach.
The new sign was erected Thursday, including the logos of the Rangers and the city.
Long Beach officials will be joined by Rangers alumni, including Francis’ son and former NHL coach Bobby Francis and former players Brian Mullen, Nick Fotiu, Steve Vickers, Pete Stemkowski, Gilles Villemure, Andre Dore and Ron Greschner. Rangers alumni and coaches will host about 60 kids in a “learn to play” camp on the ice.
“Emile meant so much to myself and the Rangers organization for such a long time,” Mullen said. “It’s so fantastic that we’re finally doing something to keep his name and memory alive. He was a tremendous man, both on and off ice.”
The Long Beach Ice Arena, built in 1973, has a storied history, said Stemkowski, who lives in Long Beach and played for the Rangers from 1970 to 1977. In addition to the Rangers practice facility for six years, the arena has also hosted San Jose Sharks practices, boxing and the Nassau County High School Hockey League.
Stemkowski only knew Madison Square Garden as a visiting player and after he was traded from Detroit, the Rangers first practiced in New Hyde Park. He said Francis sought to move the practice facility in Long Beach where his youth hockey program flourished. Stemkowski said he worked with the city and the Rangers to dedicate the arena to Francis’ memory after he died in February.
“I didn't know Long Beach from Timbuktu, but they dropped me off here in Long Beach and this is my home ever since. So, technically, I’m the Lone Ranger here in Long Beach,” he said. “After all the work that he put in getting the people to live here in Long Beach, so he thought why not build an arena here?”
The Rangers have helped the city refurbish the arena, including a $25,000 donation after Superstorm Sandy to replace the arena’s ice-making equipment, Long Beach Public Works Commissioner Joe Brand said.
The city also served as a distribution center in the days after Sandy and hosted an alumni game, former spokesman Gordon Tepper said.
The city completed a flood-mitigation project this year with $500,000 in federal disaster funding to replace a steel structure on the east wall that sustained water damage.
The Rangers are also refurbishing locker rooms, protective netting and hockey equipment for public programs, Brand said. The Rangers host the Junior Rangers and other youth leagues at the arena.
Programs at the Long Beach rink have produced several professional or NHL players including Charlie McAvoy and Joey Diamond.
“This is a South Shore hockey factory,” Brand said. “As a kid growing up here … This is Rangers country. I'm sure there's a large demographic of people still left here in Long Beach, that remember when they lived here and practiced here and were part of the fabric of the community."
Emile Francis Memorial Ice Arena at the City of Long Beach
Dedication: 12:15 p.m. with Rangers alumni
150 W. Bay Drive